The Climate Culture Index
In the United States, we know the systemic and lifestyle changes we need to make to tackle the climate emergency. What isn’t certain is whether people will adopt the highest-impact emission-reducing behaviors that get us there.
So, what will it take to change the way we eat, travel, and consume energy?
The new Climate Culture Index: Speeding up our shift toward climate action
Behavioral science tells us that people change when they see those around them change and sense a shift in social norms; i.e., we adjust our individual behaviors to align with how other people think and act. But we often misjudge reality; our expectations of how many of our friends and neighbors are ready to take action falls behind where they really are.
In 2021, Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment and Climate Culture program conducted a nationwide study, the Climate Culture Index, to measure the state of our beliefs related to climate action—from what individual Americans are thinking (e.g., their mindsets) about various high-impact climate actions to what they are doing about them.
The study revealed people mostly think they are alone in believing everyone else should take action for climate change. And it showed that Americans believe that these seven behaviors are important. The takeaway? If individuals don’t realize that others believe the same, they are less likely to take climate action.
We need to normalize climate action and make the movement to new norms more apparent.
What Americans are thinking and doing
The Climate Culture Index fills a critical information gap: the state of our beliefs related to climate action. Some data about individuals’ desires and attitudes toward climate action exist. We know, for example, that most Americans want to do something about climate change. Relatedly, this research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications explores Americans’ attitudes about climate change. But there isn’t good data about whether people are likely to take climate action in their own lives.
The Index surveyed a representative sample of 1,999 individuals across the country about their opinions, beliefs, and preferences related to each of the seven highest-impact emission-reducing behaviors an individual can adopt to help reduce emissions.
Rare analyzed both ‘leading indicators of behavior adoption’ and psycho-social states to understand their current baseline. These included whether people reported adopting any of the behaviors; their perceptions of how many others have adopted the behaviors; their self-efficacy (how confident they felt in their ability to adopt the behavior); and their intentions to perform the behavior in the future, among others.
The best predictor of climate action is whether a person believes that other people are already taking action. It turns out this understanding that others are doing something matters even more than their own belief that they should take action. We need to normalize climate action and make the movement to new norms more apparent.
When climate-friendly actions are seen as common, normal, and expected, people are more likely to change their behavior. This powerful insight points to the urgent need to make this normalized belief more apparent.
Using a behavioral lever, such as peer influence, is one strong way to realign what each individual believes and what their social group already—but unknowingly—believes and accelerate the adoption of new social norms.
What’s next for the Index?
The Index sets the baseline for understanding current climate action and mindsets and can inform how we design interventions that help people adopt high-impact behaviors. The summary data can also provide valuable insights for media and the government, and empower climate activists, advocates, and allies to design data-driven interventions more likely to move people along the journey from inaction to action—and ultimately, start building the critical mass needed to drive large-scale change and shift our climate culture.
Rare plans to run the Climate Culture Index annually to collect trends over time. Future studies will allow Rare to track whether Americans have adopted these seven behaviors, the predictors that signal that people are about to adopt one or more of the behaviors, and the levers that these predictors might change soon—giving an upstream view of predictable upcoming behavior changes.
We envision focusing the index on specific geographies, measuring where the norm is in places like Austin, Texas, Seattle, Washington, Minneapolis, Minnesota, or potentially in other countries.
For more information related to the Climate Culture Index research or findings, contact Brandon Schauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.